Saints were unfortunate to be overcome by one goal to nil by a slightly off colour Manchester United side last Saturday. In my preview I said that playing defensively and surrendering possession in favour of potentially being able to counter attack when United came at us would be the way to take something from the game. It was Mourinho who followed this plan though, and rather reverted to type by playing a very conservative strategy, utilising the powers of Rashford and Lukaku to snatch and grab the win. They allowed Saints the lion’s share of the ball and capitalised clinically on their one clear cut chance of the match. It was, sadly, a text book away performance.
It says a lot for Mourinho’s respect for Southampton that United ended the game with 5 at the back and not an out and out striker in sight. One might point out the more cynical view would be that Mourinho knew if Saints were stifled for long enough, form would dictate that they’d be unable to score however many minutes were added on for their continual time wasting. Saints just seem incapable of breaking down any defence at present, let alone one as compact and disciplined as United’s. This isn’t to say that there weren’t opportunities, but David De Gea was never really tested by an attack clearly low on confidence as well as ideas.
The game started out fairly frantically, with United looking slightly more assured on the ball, but both teams were playing a bit fast and loose. Other than a Heinrikh Mkhitaryan shot from 20 yards which was easily gathered by Fraser Forster, the first opportunity fell to Nathan Redmond. His half volley from a poorly cleared corner fizzed over the bar from just under 18 yards.
Shortly after that, Forster got away with an incredibly poor clearance under almost no pressure, as it had just enough power to evade Marcus Rashford on the edge of the area. Had he managed to control it he would have almost certainly had an open goal to aim at.
Instead a corner was the result after some neat build up play from United lead to Matic’s attempted cross being deflected out. From the dead ball, some tussling in the box led to a Saints free kick, but on inspection of the replay United will have felt hard done by not to have a penalty as Wesley Hoedt had a handful of Fellaini’s shirt as they both went down. The Belgian’s rough and tumble reputation saving the Dutchman from a potential disaster in only his second home game.
Saints had just begun to stamp their authority on the game when in the twentieth minute, United took the lead. Romelu Lukaku’s sixth goal in six league games from his own rebounded header was somewhat against the run of play, but in the form he and United are currently in, all it takes is one big opportunity and they’ll make you pay. It could be argued that had Fraser Forster parried the ball to the side from the header rather than palming it straight back into danger, the goal would have been prevented. This is harsh on the big fella though as there wouldn’t be any debate had he not somehow managed to keep it out to begin with. More of an argument could be made that Lukaku shoved Wesley Hoedt as the ball was delivered, putting him off just enough to prevent him challenging properly for the header. Either way, Saints were unlucky to be a goal down having matched the league’s joint leaders up to that point.
Five minutes later, with the dust still settling from Lukaku’s opener, Maya Yoshida clumsily fouled Mata around twenty five yards from goal. Marcus Rashford put the resulting free kick less than a yard wide, and there was a feeling that Saints needed to get the game back under control or risk it quickly getting beyond them.
Saints managed to do so in a way after that near miss, but United continued to soak up their pressure fairly comfortably as well as posing a threat on the counter. Only some good defending from Yoshida in coming across to cover denied Mkhitaryan an opportunity to play Lukaku in when they were two versus two against our centre backs.
An unsavoury moment came around ten minutes before half time, when Long clumsily stood on the back of Fellaini’s leg as he was chasing him down. The tackle did look painful, and a definite yellow, but in no way was it a deliberate stamp. Fellaini, however, decided the only reasonable reaction was to flail on the ground uncontrollably like a daddy-long-legs with a broken wing, presumably hoping his false agony would force the referee into his back pocket. Fairly pitiful behaviour and pretty ironic from a player who goes into most aerial challenges elbows first then protests his innocence vehemently.
Anyway, barring a couple of corners for each side and a breakaway opportunity for United which was cut out, the rest of the half went by without much incident.
The second half started with a lot more impetus from Saints, who looked to press United with higher intensity. It worked well, with a couple of corners forced early in the half by Dusan Tadic down the right; although had he delivered the ball into the box quickly rather than hesitating slightly, a clear opportunity might have been provided in open play.
As it was, one of the corners led to the ball ricocheting off of Maya Yoshida and a United defender and into the path of Oriol Romeu who had come steaming in, only to poke wide from all of five yards. Admittedly he was under pressure from behind and had Phil Jones just in front of him, but if that’s on target it’s in so it has to go down as a poor miss.
A major criticism of Nathan Redmond I have had so far this season, and in his Saints career to this point to be honest, is that for a guy with pace and good control he doesn’t back himself to beat a man regularly enough. He has a habit of tiptoeing up to the defender, waiting for him to commit one hundred percent before applying the gas. The problem is most top defenders will know not to commit until they know they can get the ball or are forced to else the attacker will be past them. By the time Redmond realises this the rest of the opposing team have reorganised, our runners have been picked up and any potential threat has fizzled out. Thereby he’s forced into either a backwards or sideways pass or to cross it blindly into the area in hope, when had he done what the best dribblers do and force the man to commit early rather than wait for him to, a real chance could have been created.
It seems that he might have finally been confronted on this issue, as there are a few of occasions in the first fifteen minutes of this second half where he shows bravery and looks to beat the man. The first one sees his pass to Long in the box unfortunately cut out, the second sees his snapshot fizz into De Gea’s clutches at the near post. As Andy Townsend would say, ‘Better…’.
Even better was his third moment. Keeping the ball near the halfway line under pressure from Matic, Redmond feigned to cut inside Antonio Valencia before a sharp turn of pace and a deft touch took him outside the Ecuadorian and past his flailing challenge. With time to look up and find a man in the box he picks out Shane Long, whose header sadly leaves a lot to be desired. He just seemed to edge forwards too early and as such gets caught under the ball. Had it been Manolo Gabbiadini in there or even Charlie Austin, it might have been a different story. That is being harsh on Shane though, as his industry and willingness to chase everything has been key so far in the second half resurgence from Saints.
Another player who I have heavily criticised recently is Dusan Tadic. The Serb has been immensely frustrating in his sluggish approach to build up play. Like Redmond, he just seems to take an age to make a decision and by the time it dawns on him what he ought to do, the ball is either nicked from him or the opportunity is gone. In the second period of this game though he looked back to his tricky best. His trademark back-heels into full backs’ paths to cross were abundant. One such cross from Cedric flashed across the face of goal, with Long inches away from meeting it with a stooping header. We were getting closer.
This clearly hadn’t gone unnoticed by Jose Mourinho, and on came the more defensive minded Ander Herrera for Juan Mata in an attempt to stymie our midfield dominance. Speaking of dominant midfielders I can’t believe I have yet to mention the indomitable Mario Lemina, who had come flying out of the box in this half. He is physical, fast and brave on the ball; everything we’ve been lacking from our midfielders other than Romeu for the last year or so. Yes, he gives the ball away at times and can be a little over zealous in his running, sometimes dribbling himself into trouble, but he drives the team forward in the manner of Morgan Schneiderlin in his pomp for us. He’s both quicker and stronger than the Frenchman, though. An exciting prospect indeed and looking a steal at £18 million in the current inflated market.
A warning shot arrived from United in the 65th minute, as Hoedt lost the ball on our left flank, and Mkhitaryan played Lukaku in, but he could only fire his shot straight at Forster’s feet with Yoshida narrowing the angle well. They’re still leading and still very dangerous even with very little of the ball.
Oriol Romeu’s header a couple of minutes later was arguably the closes Saints had come to a goal so far. A corner from the left saw the Spaniard rise above his marker and nod tha ball towards the far post, only for the pesky afro’d bonce of Fellaini to head it clear a yard from the line.
With fifteen minutes to go and a few half chances for Saints having come and gone, Mourinho made his second defensive reinforcing change, with Smalling replacing Mkhitaryan. Jose clearly sensed that for all Saints’ huff and puff an extra centre half should give United enough at the back to see off the threat.
He was almost proven wrong a few minutes later, with Oriol Romeu sliding the ball just wide of De Gea’s post from a six yard shot just to the left of the goal after some neat build up play on the edge of the penalty area. If anyone gambles on that at the far post it’s a tap in.
United then have their best chance to kill the game off a minute after, Lukaku’s cut back fell, unfortunately for the away fans, to Ander Herrera who blazed over. If it’s the other way around and the Spaniard is playing that into the Belgian’s feet you get the feeling it would have been good night see you in the top corner.
Saints threw on Manolo Gabbiadini, followed by Charlie Austin and James Ward-Prowse for the final fifteen and then ten minutes to try and rescue a point, but sadly to no avail. Mourinho proving his anything to win reputation is still deserved, as most of the four minutes of added time were spent watching Marcus Rashford walk off the pitch and then the Portuguese himself being sent to the stands. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if his sending off was deliberately invoked to waste as many seconds as possible. And because it’s Manchester United those lost minutes weren’t added on top of the stoppage time and so as the final whistle blew it was sour grapes all round.
To be honest, it was a classic away performance from a title challenger who were missing a star player. They did what they had to do. They didn’t expend unnecessary energy pressing constantly and allowed Saints to dictate the play, confident in the knowledge that they had the discipline and defensive nous to hold their clean sheet. There were some near misses, and you feel a more confident attack would have finished at least one of the chances created, but it wasn’t to be for Southampton today.
I feel though that the performance can give us a lot to be positive about. Other than the goals and a couple of chances we contained United’s potent attack well, and with our best centre half on the bench to boot. Admittedly Pogba’s absence skews this defensive rating slightly, as with him the side they are a different beast, but they still had a number of potentially lethal players on the pitch. If the referee sees the push from Lukaku on Hoedt in the lead up to the goal it probably would have been disallowed.
It’s in attack where the problems persist. For all the effort, David De Gea was still not properly tested all game, and that is pretty poor when you consider the amount of time we spent in their half in the second period. Hopefully the slightly less stern test of Stoke away will see our strikers and creative players finally flourish. With them having five, yes FIVE, defenders absent through injury, you’d bloody well hope so.